Act of kindness brings a smile to isolated international student

Act of kindness brings a smile to isolated international student
Brendan Rees

Alone, far from family, and living in her West Melbourne home without a heater while trying to undertake her doctoral research, Arianna Oddo was feeling the winter chill.

The PhD science student who moved to Melbourne from Italy three-and-half-years ago to undertake her studies at Monash University had recently hit a challenging time in her life amid the COVID-19 lockdowns and decided to reach out for help on social media.  

Her post on the North Melbourne Good Karma Network Facebook page caught the attention of Jenni Morris, a neighbour who was only too willing to loan her a heater.  

“It’s just doing what a lot of us do in this community and I have a particular interest in international students because I have some understanding of the challenges of their lives,” Ms Morris said, who worked with international students for more than 10 years during her time at RMIT University as a support worker.

“She had a particularly gruelling week that week. It just happened that I did have a spare heater … I thought ‘oh god, the last thing she needs is to be in a really cold house.’”

“It’s just one more added stress on top of their already stressful lives.”

The pair met up (before the fifth lockdown) and clicked straight away over coffee. Ms Morris even volunteered to be a listener so Ms Oddo could practice her oral presentation after being selected for the Victorian finals of the FameLab competition.     

Ms Oddo told North West City News she was so grateful for Ms Morris’s help, saying “It’s really nice to have someone who talk to.”

According to experts, Ms Oddo is not alone in experiencing social isolation with lockdowns having “massively” taken a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of PhD students.

RMIT psychologist Dr James Collett said “social links are tremendously important” as international students were “far more likely to be living in apartments,” which would be “detrimental to wellbeing” during lockdowns.

University of NSW Associate Professor Melissa Hart, who works with PhD students in the field of urban climate, said a “PhD is really hard in normal times, and just to attempt to do it during this pandemic is just really horrible”.

She said PhD scholarships were “incredibly low” and students who relied on field work “had to completely rework what their project looks like, which is really tough.”

“Some of these wonderful benefits you get from a PhD are the travel opportunities to visit other institutions and conferences and present your work and meet other researchers – they’re not getting any of that,” Professor Hart said.

Belle Lin (pictured), president of the Council of International Students Australia, said the pandemic had also caused “a lot of mental and financial stress on students”, who were already isolated from their families and experiencing loss of work. 

The 25-year-old from Malaysia, who is studying a PhD at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, had to dip into her savings after losing her part-time university teaching role.

“During the lockdown everything is shut, and your timeline will be stretched. I’m racing against that deadline,” she said. 

“I’m feeling the pressure now, especially someone like myself who has a lot of lab-based work.” •

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